Led by Duke Environmental Engineering PhD grad Michael Valerino, Durham-based Solar Unsoiled is building a brighter future for solar energy by optimizing an oft-neglected but nonetheless important process: cleaning solar panels.
With an undergraduate chemical engineering degree and an interest in the environment from his farm-grown upbringing in Maryland horse country, Valerino first heard about the possible negative impacts of dirty solar panels during his grad school interview with Duke Professor Mike Bergin, who saw cloudy solar panels at a site where he was studying air pollution in India.
Valerino didn’t know much about solar panels back in 2016, but he knew the project had the potential to combine his passions for clean air, clean energy and chemistry. Soon, he was all in.
“The issue of solar panels getting dirty and less efficient is this really cool issue at the intersection of air pollution and climate change and renewable energy,” Valerino said. “I saw that it had a lot of potential to make a real impact on the solar industry. Day one of my PhD, I started learning as much as possible about this issue and how it was impacting global solar-energy generation.”
The need for panel cleaning arises when particles on solar panels prevent light from reaching the panel’s photovoltaic (PV) cells, thereby decreasing the amount of electricity generated and making the process less efficient—and less profitable. Solar Unsoiled’s algorithm finds the point of optimization between revenue losses and cleaning costs for solar firms based on a variety of variables, including location, angles and layout of solar panels.
The solar issue is of special interest to North Carolina, which is the U.S.’s fourth biggest solar energy producer with over 8000 MW of solar electricity produced a year according to 2022 data. Despite North Carolina’s relatively clean air and abundance of rain, Valerino’s team found a 10% annual loss in efficiency from dirty solar panels.
“At the extreme ends, we have observed from 1% efficiency loss per year up to 1% of efficiency loss per day,” Valerino said. “This is a big deal for the industry as large-scale solar can kind of be thought of as a high-volume, low-margin business. Small impacts to your energy production are impacts to your revenue—and if you have small margins, large impacts to your profitability.”
While Solar Unsoiled does not directly provide cleaning services, the platform can connect solar sites to appropriate cleaners.
In the process of starting Solar Unsoiled (and finishing his PhD), Valerino worked with solar industry experts to find that solar cleaning was a pain point many companies struggled with.
Solar Unsoiled’s primary current offering is its optimization of cleaning time, but its platform helps address many other components of this pain point, including knowing how dirty panels are, managing cleaning across a fleet of different solar sites and how to budget for and prioritize cleanings.
Valerino is currently working out of Birmingham, Ala., alongside co-founder and CTO Harold Nyikal (Valerino is the CEO) as part of the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech cohort, but his team is located largely in Durham. The team just closed a $650,000 funding round led by a top-10 industry solar producer.
While Solar Unsoiled is still in semi-stealth mode, they have some big things on the horizon, including a market-ready software by the end of 2022. Looking forward as the solar industry continues to grow, Valerino hopes to move the company from “reactive” to “proactive” by involving Solar Unsoiled’s cleaning software in the development phase of solar farms.
“Right now, this issue is causing on the order of $10 billion a year in losses globally, and given how fast solar is growing, that number is expected to grow a lot in the next 10 years,” Valerino said. “In the U.S., especially with some recent legislation, solar is becoming a lot more of an attractive option. We not only want to make every solar site operate at maximum efficiency, we want to reduce the risk that soiling causes before a site is even constructed.”